Bill Heslop (Bill Hunter) entertains a Japanese resort developer (Ken Senga) and his interpreter (Kuni Hashimoto) at a Chinese restaurant. The meal is free, because Bill Heslop has done the owner (Jon-Claire Lee) a favour with the immigration authorities. Bill brings his whole family to the banquet, then abuses them, particularly Muriel (Toni Collette), for being useless. Bill invites local beautician Deirdre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson) to join the table. Mrs Heslop (Jeanie Drynan) does not realise that Deirdre is having an affair with her husband. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
The scene establishes a real sense of the family’s poisoned dynamics, the patriarchal tyranny of the 'great man’, his corrupt private and public personas, and the contempt with which he treats his 'loved’ ones. The addition of other races at the table allows Hogan to show Bill’s cultural insensitivity, and the stupidity of Deirdre, the woman he is having an affair with. It’s an extremely jaundiced picture of a certain kind of Australian male, and the effect they have on their loved ones.
Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is the eldest daughter of a family of underachievers. Her father Bill (Bill Hunter) is a corrupt town councillor in the northern NSW town of Porpoise Spit; her mother Betty (Jeanie Drynan) looks perpetually stunned. Her brothers and sisters are lazy, overweight television addicts. Muriel’s only solace is the music of Abba, and her dream of one day having a beautiful wedding, something that her alleged 'girlfriends’ tell her she’ll never have. Muriel’s life changes when she runs into Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths), a former school friend. They run away to Sydney to discover a wider world (after Muriel has stolen $12,000 from her father), but fate keeps threatening to drag them back to Porpoise Spit. When a serious disease threatens Rhonda’s independence, they make a promise to stick together and never go back.
Muriel’s Wedding took Australia by storm when it opened in 1994. Not only did it introduce two new actors of genuinely stark talent (Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths), both of whom would become international stars, it satirised an Australian family in a way that audiences found extremely moving, as well as hilarious.
Writer-director PJ Hogan’s depiction of a battler family from a forgettable north coast backwater is relentlessly bleak, but also immensely sympathetic (with more than a passing resemblance to Jane Austen’s Persuasion). Hogan doesn’t create an ironic distance, from which an audience may look down; he keeps us closely identified with his characters so that we see ourselves.
Most of this identification is through Muriel, but not all – Hogan is careful to give us a sense of desolation and disappointment that befuddles all members of the Heslop family, from the father down. Bill Hunter’s blustering patriarch is one of Australian cinema’s most pungently awful characters. Although never actually evil, he has raised a tribe of children to believe they’re 'useless’, and that’s how they behave. Jeanie Drynan, as his wife, has become almost catatonic in her distraction – a portrait of a wasted life that is completely tragic. Critics have suggested a connection between the Heslops and the Rudd family from the silent movie On Our Selection (and various sequels), suggesting that Australian cinema tends toward 'a celebration of ugliness’. Muriel is certainly an ugly duckling, and it isn’t really clear by the end that she will become a swan. Rather, Paul J Hogan’s aim, as he has said, was to celebrate the ugly duckling for herself.
'Usually in Australian films, definitely in Australian television, definitely in American films, the central character is usually the Sophie Lee character. … Muriel in these stories is left out or consigned to a position of best friend, one to feel sorry for … I wanted to put that kind of character centre-stage and the beautiful best friend in the position of living horror’. Tom O’Regan, in Australian National Cinema (Routledge 1996), points out that this celebration of ugliness is common in Australian film, going as far back as the not-so-pretty protagonists in The Sentimental Bloke (1919), or the 'daggy’ charms of Bazza McKenzie (from the 1970s). It is arguably an expression of Australia’s outpost mentality, our distance from the metropolitan 'centres’ of culture and beauty (once London, more recently New York). This is sometimes interpreted as the 'cultural cringe’, but in Muriel’s Wedding it is a statement of evolution, an escape from what the architect Robyn Boyd called 'the great Australian ugliness’. That’s why the film has so many shots of cars and taxis driving away from the Heslop family home in Porpoise Spit. This is the Australia that once was, PJ Hogan seems to be saying, but no one has to live there any more. A film like The Castle makes a similar observation about the dagginess of Australian domesticity, but a different conclusion – you’d be mad to want to move!
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip shows Bill Heslop (Bill Hunter), his family, a Japanese property developer called Victor and Victor’s interpreter in a Chinese restaurant. Bill dominates the conversation by bragging of his influence and political aspirations before turning on daughter Muriel (Toni Collette), contrasting her with Victor, who was a millionaire at age 19. While her mother congratulates Muriel on getting a job interview, Bill expands his criticisms to all of the children, labelling them as 'useless no-hopers’. Deirdre Chambers, a 'beauty consultant’, appears and takes over the conversation.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
This clip starts approximately 8 minutes into the feature.
We see Bill Heslop at a Chinese restaurant with his whole family and beautician Deirdre Chambers along with a Japanese resort developer and his interpreter. Bill is talking to the restaurant owner, Charlie.
Bill How’s your uncle?
Charlie Very well.
Bill I got his uncle out from China. Talked to the boys from immigration. Hugh McCain and his blokes. They got his uncle out from China.
Charlie This is a great man.
Bill Charlie, this is Victor Kanasui and his mate, ah, Akira.
We see the two Japanese men bow their heads to greet Charlie.
Bill They’re building a resort at Wollom beach and they might want a Chinese restaurant in it. So keep the food comin’.
Charlie Please, please.
Charlie walks away from the table.
Bill It’s all on the house. Got his uncle out from China.
Akira You’ve done a lot for the people of this town, Bill.
Bill Who told you that?
Akira You did.
Bill Oh well, I like helping out. I ran for State Government once. Joanie, stand up and show him your shirt.
Joanie stands up. She is wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘Vote 1 Bill Heslop — You can’t stop progress.’
Bill ‘Bill Heslop — You Can’t Stop Progress.’
Joanie He lost.
Bill Yeah well, missed on a postal vote. In a way I’m glad I didn’t get in. I do more for this place at grass-roots level, you know ah, high-rise, malls, resorts. Porpoise Spit Council believes in progress. Muriel, when Victor was 19 he was a millionaire. Muriel’s on the dole. So is Perry.
Muriel Well, I’ve got a job interview next week. An apprentice locksmith.
Betty Oh. That sounds wonderful. Doesn’t it Bill?
Bill A bit old for an apprentice aren’t you? A bit old for everything. After she failed high school I get her into a secretarial course run by a mate of mine. Three hundred dollars a term. Two years, two thousand dollars. She comes out and she can’t even type.
Muriel I could type.
Bill Then I get her a job at me solicitors and after a month Stevie Mason rings up and says he’ll have to let her go because she can’t type.
Muriel If I couldn’t type why did they give me my secretarial diploma?
Bill Because I paid for it! Sits around the house like a dead weight, watching TV, sleeping all day, getting arrested at weddings. You’re useless. You’re all useless. A bunch of useless no-hopers.
We see Bill addressing all his children sitting at the table. They all hang their heads. Deirdre enters the Chinese restaurant.
Deirdre Bill! Bill! Oh, Bill.
Bill Deirdre Chambers. What a coincidence.
Deirdre What a coincidence!
Bill Deirdre, pull up a chair. Penelope, shift out.
Perry, Muriel and Penelope shuffle along the table to make room for Deirdre. Deirdre sits down at the table.
Bill Deirdre, Victor Kanasui, his mate Akira, all the way from China — ah, Japan. Deirdre’s a sales representative for Radiant Cosmetics.
Deirdre Beauty consultant, Bill.
Bill Sorry. Beauty consultant.
Deirdre Sales representative sounds so common. I advise women on the right lipstick, base and eyeliner. Of course, you’d know all about make-up. Your wives are probably geishas.
Akira chokes on his drink after Deirdre’s comment.
Betty You look lovely Deirdre.
Deirdre ignores Betty completely.
Deirdre Muriel, how was that wedding?
Perry She was arrested.
Deirdre That’s lovely. Don’t you wish you were 22 again Betty. Remember that age?
Betty Oh yes. What?
Deirdre I bet you were a terror when you were 22. Bill, was she a terror?
Bill Where’s Charlie Chan with that food?
Betty Oh, yes. Where is he?